Men of the Word

In his great book Christian Leaders of the Last Century J.C. Ryle, writing in 19th century England makes this observation of the men used by God to help usher in revival in the generations that preceded his own:
“They taught one set of truths. They taught them in the same way, with fire, reality, earnestness, as men fully convinced of what they taught. They taught them in the same spirit, always loving, compassionate, and, like Paul even weeping, but always bold, unflinching, and not fearing the face of man…The instrumentality by which the spiritual reformers of the last century carried on their operations was of the simplest description. It was neither more nor less than the old apostolic weapon of preaching. The sword which St. Paul wielded with such mighty effect, when he assaulted the strongholds of heathenism eighteen hundred years ago, was the same sword by which they won their victories.”

There is a spiritual famine in our land because the Word of God is absent in too many of America’s pulpits. Don’t misunderstand. I am not talking about liberal churches that have always been skeptical of the authority and reliability of the Bible. We can expect the Bible to be absent in a meaningful way from their pulpits. It seems to me, the great irony is the absence of the Bible in the pulpits of “conservative, Bible-believing” churches. In an effort to see their church grow numerically, these pastors take pains not to “bore people” with the Bible. They use Bible verses, to be sure, but they shy away from careful exposition of the Scriptures. Is there any wonder why Christians in America today know more about “slaying the giants in your life” or “rolling away the stones in your life” than they do about practical holiness, the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrinal flow of the book of Romans? Do these things even matter to Christians any more?

At a recent children’s ministry conference, a prominent young mega-church pastor from Atlanta, Georgia instructed the gathered pastors that preaching through books of the Bible was “lazy.” How appallingly arrogant to dismiss such men as Martin Luther, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Thomas Boston, Matthew Henry, Johnathan Edwards, Robert Murray McCheyne, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, John Piper, Alister Begg (need I go on?) as lazy because they preach(ed) through books of the Bible. True, these men apparently were not “creative” enough to use stage props and video clips from the latest television shows. All they had was the passion to take their congregations on deep diving missions into God’s precious Word. If that is “lazy” then I will take it over “creative” every day of the week.

If you think I am being too critical let me remind you of what Scripture has to say about the shepherds of God’s people who fail to proclaim God’s Word faithfully and clearly. Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, who lived during a spiritual famine, God proclaimed:
"Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’…Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?"
- Jeremiah 23:16-17, 28-29

Preachers have been called into battle but instead of wielding the sword of the Spirit too many play around with trendy sociological theories and baptized versions of pop psychology. Dr Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary rightly observes that one of the problems in many churches today is that the Gospel is proclaimed in therapeutic terms. In other words the Gospel is often not proclaimed as the good news that by His sacrificial death Jesus delivers sinners from the justified wrath of God. Instead the gospel is promoted as a means to psychological or mental wholeness and material blessing.

It is odd that preachers who play fast and loose with the Scriptures are often given a pass because they are nice or they have good hearts. It is reasoned, “He may not get it right when it comes to the Bible but he sure is a good man.” But what is interesting about this perspective is that is exactly opposite of how the Bible evaluates the same kind of situation. Paul writes in Philippians 1:15-18:
"Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here [in prison] for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."
If Paul had to choose between a decent man who did not proclaim the gospel well and a poorly motivated man who did justice to the gospel in his preaching he would always choose the later. The man matters but the message matters more. O that God would give to His people more men of the Word!